Paul’s Column: the Brexit process is speeding up

26 September 2018

As a bath empties, the water circles the plughole in decreasing circles, slowly at first but then with ever increasing speed until it hurtles into the abyss.  The Brexit process is behaving in a similar manner.  In the time between the referendum and the triggering of Article 50 not much actually happened. In the year of negotiations that followed, David Davis — the then Brexit secretary — made the occasional visit to Brussels, never staying long, again, not much happened. 
 
But Brexit is now speeding up. Dominic Raab, the new Brexit secretary, has spent much more time in talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator, than his predecessor did. With only six months till Brexit happens on 29th March 2019 diaries are being consulted and key events pencilled in.
 
The legally binding exit deal and the accompanying political declaration on future relations was originally intended to be ready for next month but this has now slipped to November.  Last week’s EU heads of state meeting in Salzburg was clearly a set back for the UK’s negotiating strategy with the EU rebuffing the Prime Minister’s Chequers proposal and Theresa May then throwing a staged hissy fit in Downing Street the next day.
 
The process however continues and if Raab and Barnier can strike a deal we can presume the UK government and the EU heads of government will support it, but, and it’s a big ‘but’, this isn’t the same as the UK parliament supporting the deal any more than it means the parliaments of the EU 27 support it.  Support will only fully come once all the parliaments of the EU Member States have voted on the deal, which will happen throughout December and January.  For the EU to endorse the deal a minimum of 20 EU parliaments have to back it and between them they must represent a minimum of 65% of the population of the EU. 
 
At the same time the UK parliament will also have its so-called ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal.  Given how quickly the Prime Minister’s Chequers deal unravelled there is talk that if Raab and Barnier struck a deal on a Thursday in November then the House of Commons would find itself debating this deal the following Monday and then voting on it within days.  
 
What happens at Westminster is anyone’s guess and if anyone tells you they know don’t believe them.  No one knows.  
 
For Labour to support the deal it must deliver on our six tests, one of which is for the deal to deliver the ‘exact same benefits as being in the Single Market and a customs union’.  This is looking increasingly unlikely.
 
The scene is therefore set for a seismic political moment.  May’s narrow majority, even with the DUP’s backing, means that if all of Labour’s MPs vote against, it would take fewer than 10 Tory rebels to defeat the government. The vote is therefore likely to be very tight with even sick MPs being stretchered in to cast what could be the winning margin of a single vote.
 
If the government fails to get its Brexit deal through parliament then we are in constitutional crisis territory.  Presumably Labour would move for a vote of no confidence?  Would the prime minister resign?  Does a general election, Labour’s preference, inevitably ensue?  
 
Len McClusky, leader of Unite the union, is on record as stating Brexit offers the best chance of bringing down the government, given it is the issue that is most divisive within the parliamentary Conservative party – as it has been for at least the last 25 years.
 
Is there a place on the list of possible scenarios for a further referendum or what is being called a ‘People’s Vote’ on the final deal?  Yes, clearly there is, with over 125 contemporary motions submitted to this week’s Labour Party conference the majority of which call for a ‘People’s Vote’.  Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit lead, is keen to keep all options on the table so that Labour has maximum room for manoeuvre as it seeks to exploit Conservative divisions.
 
We haven’t had a winter general election since 1923 but as the Brexit bath empties it’s looking more likely than a white Christmas.

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